There was a written notice above him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:38-43)
Jesus was crucified with two other men. He was there to suffer agony and death in order to save sinners, but these men were criminals.
The first illustrates the mindset of the reprobates. Even when he is in grave danger or when he is beat down, a non-Christian hardens his heart, and puts on a proud and sarcastic attitude. Even when he is in trouble, he still throws insults at Christ and his followers. Punishment incites bitterness and violence in him, not self-examination and repentance.
But one who is being converted takes a different position. The second criminal illustrates the simplicity of salvation and the sufficiency of faith. Presumably, he was not a follower of Jesus, and did not sit under hours of preaching about the Christ, the kingdom of God, and the way to salvation. He was nailed to a cross. His feet could not run back and forth to perform errands for the Lord. And his hands could not bring anything to alleviate his pain. The last great thing that he performed was a crime punishable by death. Yet Jesus accepted him to heaven.
Nevertheless, we must not represent him as wholly ignorant, or his faith as void of doctrinal materials. Even if he had never heard of Jesus before, there was a written notice above the Lord: “This is the King of the Jews.” This statement of his “crime” became a gospel tract to this second man. It was the most concise of all gospel tracts, but by the power of the Holy Spirit, it was enough to move the heart. There were also the jeers of the crowd, and in the hand of God, they became powerful sermons on the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ.
It is not uncommon for opponents of the Christian faith to become unwilling messengers of the gospel as they recite its doctrines so as to criticize them. God enables his chosen ones to perceive the truth even when it is mentioned only to be attacked. The same is true with professing believers who attempt to refute biblical teachings in favor of human theories and inventions.
When I teach the truth, those who are supposed to agree with me will surely agree with me, and they will agree with me even when they hear what I say through my critics. They will see that what is criticized is more biblical and rational than the criticism. God will attract the right people even by the few paragraphs cited. So critics help me reach people that otherwise I may never reach. And those that disagree with me or are swayed by the critics are useless to me anyway. Whether they actively oppose or seemingly remain neutral makes little difference, for as Jesus said, “He who does not gather with me, scatters.” There are only two groups – for or against. If you are supposed to be for me you will be for me no matter how information about me gets to you. If you are supposed to be against me, there is no need for me to prevent you from knowing about me, since you are essentially no different than the one who does not know. Satan wishes to silence the truth altogether, but when it is heard by one whom God has chosen, sometimes even only half a sentence, he is awakened. Thus God’s commission and sovereignty form the basis for a confident and indestructible ministry.
If this is true of a servant, it is much more so of the master. This second man saw that Jesus was right, and that the mockers were wrong, although some of what he knew about Jesus probably came from their insults. The man’s faith was simple, but far from empty. He had the conviction to turn against another criminal and rebuke him. He confessed his sin, and said that he received what his deeds deserved. He also had a definite opinion about Jesus Christ. He declared that, although the Lord came under the same sentence and penalty, he was innocent and had done nothing wrong. His statement to Jesus suggests that he believed in the perpetuity of human existence and identity after physical death. That is, he affirmed the reality of man’s soul, that it is distinguishable from the body, and that man’s identity is associated with this immortal soul.
Moreover, although the Lord was nailed to the cross and about to die, this man believed that Jesus would inherit a kingdom, and rested his hope on it. His faith surpassed even those disciples who had been following Jesus, for some of them said, “The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:20-21). They thought it was the end, that the Master’s death had dashed their hope, and remained in doubt even after the resurrection had taken place. Jesus rebuked them for their unbelief (v. 25-26). In contrast, while Jesus was dying on the cross, the criminal believed that the Lord would possess a kingdom. Then, unlike many people, he did not take it for granted that he would receive forgiveness and gain acceptance. He asked. And he did not ask just anybody; he asked Jesus.
This is the faith that leads to salvation, that makes us friends of Christ: “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” If we are the friends of Christ, then we will renounce the world and our former life. We will rebuke non-Christians, and lambaste them for their insolence, their self-righteousness, and their unintelligent thinking. We will declare the righteousness and kingdom of Jesus Christ, and put our hope in him. We will go to him, only him, and ask for salvation: “Jesus, I deserve hell, but take me to heaven. Remember me. Take notice of me. Have compassion on me.” It is indeed simple, but that first criminal did not do it, and was doomed to everlasting torment. The second one did it, and was accepted by the heavenly king into paradise, where there are fullness of joy and pleasures for evermore.